Last week, after The Post exposed the Long Island Rail Road’s overtime scandal, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Pat Foye announced a crackdown: The LIRR and the MTA’s other agencies must investigate whether a track worker really worked 16 hours a day for an entire year straight, for example.
A crackdown is laudable, but it’s not enough: The bigger problem is the union contracts that workers expertly exploit.
The LIRR racked up $225 million in OT last year, according to the Empire Center — consuming nearly a third of the $740 million in fares Long Island commuters pay. Put another way, without this burden, the average commuter riding from Huntington to Penn Station every day could pay $253, not $363.
Insane overtime rules are effectively taking a restaurant meal each month away from harried — and lower-paid — private-sector workers. Fraud needs policing and punishment, but the rules encourage fraud.
What are the rules that drive up overtime? To start, LIRR managers are hamstrung by nearly a dozen separate union contracts, the longest of which is 128 pages.
Let’s look at the rulebook for “maintenance of way” workers, including track workers.
Workers make time and a half after eight hours — and double time after 16. Nowhere does the agreement ponder whether it’s wise for track workers to work two full days’ worth straight.
All “new assignments” for maintenance jobs must last at least three weeks, meaning the LIRR can’t flexibly deploy workers without paying extra for short tasks. Employees can “pick” assignments by seniority, so whether a worker is great at one job and can finish on time but not particularly good at another doesn’t matter.
Some workers who report “late for duty” because of “an interruption in service” on the LIRR “shall suffer no loss of pay.”
Most private-sector workers must absorb the consequences of bad rail service: if they’re paid by the hour, losing some of their paycheck, or, if they’re on salary, having to work later to finish their work. But starting the clock early, before LIRR workers actually arrive, means more overtime. And 12 paid holidays — including two separate Presidents Day holidays, and Election Day — help start the OT clock early during most months.
Workers who can miraculously perform the job duties of an employee paid at a higher rate will be paid that higher rate for such work. (This rule is not symmetrical: Workers asked to fill in for a lower-paid employee, mysteriously, don’t take a temporary pay cut.)
If it rains? Workers “opting not to work under such conditions will be granted two hours pay … and released.”
Some of these rules are decades old. Vacation pay — five weeks for long-term employees — is determined “in according with the vacation agreement of Dec. 17, 1941.”
A sick-leave agreement — 12 days, plus a long-term “bank” of up to 72 days, for people who don’t get sick much — goes back to 1968, when, apparently, people got sick a lot.
These rules work in tandem to push up costs — and overtime — overall. Months’ worth of vacation and sick pay leave the railroad short of hands who haven’t worked their full schedules.
If you can’t work in the rain, you’ve got to do more work, past a regular eight hours, when the sun is shining. Good sick pay creates the possibility of mass “sick outs” if the LIRR even hints at demanding change.
The rules date to when the LIRR was part of a highly lucrative private railroad, benefiting from subsidies from long-distance travel. After World War II, competing automobiles and planes placed pressure on costs.
LIRR workers first struck over their bankrupt employer’s proposed changes to work rules in … 1952. A 1972 strike lasted six weeks in winter — before the state, by then in charge, capitulated.
That capitulation has continued. In 2010, still stung from the 2008 fiscal crisis, the MTA submitted a contract that involved modest changes to work rules. The LIRR’s coalition of unions rejected it, sending it to years-long federal mediation.
By 2014, the LIRR had given up. But even then, facing an offer with no work-rule changes, railroad workers threatened to strike. Gov. Andrew Cuomo intervened and cut them an even better deal.
Politicians see strikes as failures, and unions are well aware of that (as a federal railroad, the LIRR workforce can legally strike, unlike the subway).
Until New York shows that it can credibly withstand a long work stoppage, with preparations akin to that for the averted L train shutdown, we’re stuck with the more workaday failure that is our crumbling infrastructure.
This piece originally appeared at New York Post
Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images